Changing Landscapes

Apr 2, 2021

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I feel like Illini fans were somewhat enjoying watching Portal Madness from the sidelines until this afternoon. And then the bombshell hits: Adam Miller is in the transfer portal. There's a lot to cover here so buckle up.

First, we need to talk about the changing landscape of college athletics. What's happening, what will it look like in five years, and how does that affect the beloved? I'm just the man to tell you about it. Finally I get to use my Landscape Architecture degree.

We should start with the "why"? As in, why would the NCAA lift the "you can transfer, but you'll have to sit out a year at your new school before you're eligible" restriction? Well, they haven't, at least not yet. It was up for a final vote in January - just a formality - but the NCAA delayed the vote. Why? I'm going to try to go through this quickly so this might be confusing now but will hopefully make sense by the end.

The vote in January was on two things: the new Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) rules and the loosening of the transfer rule (opening up a one-time, immediately-eligible transfer for all athletes). They delayed that vote because the DOJ sent a letter to the NCAA saying, basically, "uh, maybe don't approve NIL yet until you have all of these things worked out". The NCAA had self-imposed a deadline of January 2021 for NIL reform, and they were trying to meet it, and the DOJ said "uh, you still haven't resolved this other stuff".

Obviously, it's a very complicated issue. If you saw any of the NCAA appearance in front of the Supreme Court this week, you'd understand why. What's the line between amateur and professional? With so much money in college athletics now, is "four years of a free education" fair compensation? If the schools make millions shouldn't the athletes be paid? If you pay the athletes, should we just call it a developmental professional league?

And there are layers upon layers of questions here. Nearly all of Alabama's athletic budget comes from their football program. Shouldn't those players get the majority of that money? But if those players get the money, pretty much every other sport at Alabama, from men's golf to women's soccer, would be eliminated. When the Alabama cross country teams travel to the SEC Championships, their transportation, lodging, food, and everything else is paid for by the football team. Well, not "by" the football team - the money comes from the nine-figure football profits.

And then there's the NCAA profits. More than 90% of the NCAA's budget comes from one thing: the March Madness TV contract. That money doesn't go to the schools - it goes to the NCAA. Yes, that gives Mark Emmert his $2.7 million salary (yes, really), but it also pays for the NCAA Championships for every sport. When the Division II Tennis Championships are being held in Altamonte Springs, Florida in May, the money for the courts and the officials and security and everything else comes from... the March Madness TV contract.

That's an oversimplification - the money also goes to the schools and conferences to keep "college athletics" afloat - but the point is basically this: college football makes the schools rich, and college basketball makes the NCAA rich. The schools, in turn, take the money and make the wrestling team happen, and the NCAA, in turn, takes the money and makes Division III Volleyball happen. So nobody is getting "rich", but come on - Mark Emmert has a $2.7 million dollar salary and Jeff Brohm makes $5.25 million per year (and he went 2-4 last season and 4-8 the season before).

I have to stop here because there's so many different ways to view all of that (and so many different questions that don't really have an answer), but that's our starting point. After the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit, NIL reform is coming. Players will be able to profit off themselves (once the DOJ and the NCAA work out the very complicated legal stuff). Next up after that, in my opinion: stipends for players.

But that's another very complicated issue. As the "Jeff Brohm makes $5.25 million and Rondale Moore only gets tuition, room, and board?" volume grows louder, the NCAA will need to respond. Again, the Supreme Court arguments this week centered around all of this. On one hand, are the schools just using up these athletes and then casting them aside, some not even getting the degree that's supposed to be their end of the deal? On the other hand, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked, "How do we know that we're not just destroying the game as it exists?". Pull the wrong Jenga piece and college athletics comes tumbling down, replaced by professional minor leagues unaffiliated with universities.

Again, I know there's a million different #takes you can spin out of that last paragraph. I'm not trying to debate any of it. I wrote all of the words above just to arrive at this:

Why would the NCAA change the rules allow for athletes to transfer without sitting out? Because the NCAA is reeling a little bit, and while reeling, they probably shouldn't place "sure, you can transfer, but you'll have to sit out for a year" restrictions on athletes. They are wanting to - either for appearance reasons or because they believe it is the right thing to do - allow athletes to use their athletic skills to get an education (and prepare themselves for possible professional athletic success) at any institution they choose.

That's the "why" here as I see it. If you're saying "the system in place has worked for decades - student athletes are disincentivized from transferring because they don't want to sit out - and now they're all going to transfer without that rule in place", I think the response here is "well, should they be disincentivized?". The NCAA has looked at whether they should keep that rule in place and have chosen to remove it (even though they still haven't officially removed it yet).

The result is what we see right now. By the end of May, there might be twice as many players in the transfer portal as there were last year. We'll get to Adam Miller in a minute, I promise, but first let's talk about roster construction in 2021.

When the subcommittee approved the removal of the transfer rule in October (that was the big hurdle - the January vote was more of a formality), I tweeted this:

That's how I view it. Every player, more or less, is in a contract year. It used to be that every recruit was, in professional terms, "Illini sign Anderson to a four-year deal", and now it's "Illini sign Miller to a one-year deal". We tried to renegotiate and found out today that he's going to test the free agent market.

Obviously it's not that simple. And I should note that the new NCAA rule has "one-time" in it, so the next school to land Adam Miller likely has him for three more years (or less if he turns pro). If he were to transfer again, he'd have to sit out. So it's not like we're going to see players go to four schools in four years.

But that's the structure we're looking at right now. Every year you're (somewhat) recruiting every player on your roster again. Let's use Ohio State last year as an example.

Ohio State had brought in this great 2019 recruiting class with three top-50 players. Point guard DJ Carton, forward EJ Liddell, and big man Alonzo Gaffney. After one season, both Carton and Gaffney transfer out.

But they weren't the only players leaving. Luther Muhommad, who had started 28 of 30 games for Ohio State in 2020, transferred to Arizona State. Leading scorer Kaleb Wesson declared early for the draft and his brother Andre Wesson graduated. So Ohio State was left with five holes in their roster.

So how did they get to a 2-seed this year? Well, first off, Chris Holtmann is a pretty good coach. But they also were a team with three transfers playing significant minutes - CJ Walker (Florida State), Justice Seuing (California), and Seth Towns (Harvard). A fourth transfer, Abel Porter from Utah State, would have played significant minutes but he missed the entire season due to a medical condition. And a fifth transfer (Jimmy Sotos from Bucknell) played 10 minutes per game in the first 12 games (starting two) before a shoulder injury ended his season.

That seems to be more-or-less the direction college basketball is heading. Half your guys are players you've developed. Half your guys are players you brought in from the transfer portal. Why? Because half your guys left through the transfer portal. Let's talk about it.

I did three mailbag posts last week, but there were some additional questions on the Slack channel and I answered them there. Here's how I answered the question about transfers:

That's how I'm viewing most rosters moving forward. Same with football. I've seen a lot of "Bielema has kept nearly everyone in town!", but it's possible there are seven transfers out after spring ball. Nothing is really "set" until the next season starts. We've seen very few transfers so far, but there's still four months to go.

And I do really think that "is in the transfer portal" does not mean "has decided to leave". I remember writing about this in a post last year. You put your name in, you see who contacts you, you judge whether you might want to do that, you either jump at it or your pull your name out an return. Yes, you're risking the coach saying "sorry - we already filled your spot", but let's be honest: if Adam Miller called Brad Underwood in two weeks and said "I'd like to come back", he'd take him back with open arms.

That's kind of the point here, I think. Giving power to the players. Yes, my father would be screaming "you commit to a school, you stay committed to that school because loyalty is everything", and that's probably the reason I stayed at my last job for 24 years (same company, same desk, same chair), but I can also see how this new setup gives power to the players. They're the ones taking on the 80-hour weeks, and they're the ones trying to give themselves the best opportunity to play professionally some day, so they're the ones who should be able to choose a new situation penalty-free.

Yes, there are pitfalls, and yes, it's hard (for us) to see a better career opportunity than to be the leading scorer at Illinois next year catching passes from Andre Curbelo. But I probably follow my father's "seeing something through is always the better option than quitting in hopes of something better" a little too religiously. I'm not Adam Miller, and if Adam Miller wants to look for a better environment to prepare himself for the NBA without having to sit out a year, he should be able to do that.

As a fan? As a fan this is a rough moment. If Kofi declares for (and stays in) the draft, we'll basically lose our starting five. Yes, Jacob Grandison started the final 16 games while Da'Monte came off the bench, but Da'Monte averaged 24.9 minutes per game and Grandison averaged 15.3. You could see a team built around Miller, Curbelo, Grandison, Hawkins, and Giorgi (with Ohio State-like transfers filling many of the other roles). Building around just Curbelo, Grandison, Hawkins, and Giorgi? Man, losing 146.2 of your 200 minutes is more or less starting over.

So that leaves me in prayer. Please, God, somehow let Kofi come back. If my kids ask me what I want for Father's Day I'll tell them "I want Adam Miller to pull his name out of the portal". I'll never ask for any miracle ever again if Nimari Burnett could just somehow join Belo in the backcourt next season.

We knew next year would be a step back, but if Kofi goes, next year is basically a restart. We'd be down to one RSCI top-100 player (Curbelo) after this year's four top-50 players led us to a one-seed. Belo is a great piece to build around, but it's such a long drop from "Illinois, fresh off their Big Ten Tournament win, gets the one-seed in the Midwest region".

OK, Transfer Portal. You've taken away. Time to giveth.


IlliniJoe81 on April 2, 2021 @ 12:12 AM

Don't get too attached to Giorgi either.

ktcesw on April 2, 2021 @ 02:34 AM

Good for Miller!

uilaw71 on April 2, 2021 @ 07:16 AM

Has anyone in position to do so actually spoken with Miller? It would be interesting to know what he’s thinking.

Efrem on April 2, 2021 @ 08:11 AM

It's probably more what people around Adam are thinking or telling him to think

HiggsBoson on April 3, 2021 @ 06:11 PM

Heard his mama was mad about something related to Ayo. Dunno if that's true.

IlliNYC on April 2, 2021 @ 08:21 AM

The college basketball most of us grew up with is gone. We're rarely going to be watching players progress from Freshman through Senior year--I'd bet HS recruiting starts to matter less and less.

It's not an improvement in the experience of the fan--and, I suspect, for most kids it won't be an improvement in their experience and development as an athlete.

OTOH it could all be very good for Illinois as a program--I think we have a coach and staff that are well-suited to this new world, we have a huge and engaged alumni and fan-base, & we're in the biggest, richest, and best conference--there are way more programs below us to snatch players from than there are above us.

HiggsBoson on April 3, 2021 @ 06:13 PM

Can't say that I'm all that interested in watching in that scenario. IMO free agency ruined professional sports.

MuckFichigan92 on April 4, 2021 @ 11:28 PM

Heck of a take, which I believe is spot on. The "shoe" camps have to wither as a result of the portal.

thegoah on April 2, 2021 @ 08:27 AM

So my question now is: other than your top 10 immediate impact one-year-then-the-NBA types, why would anyone continue to recruit high schoolers?

Freshmen gonna freshman. Why bring a guy in who can’t contribute very much, develop him, give him minutes when he’s developing, only to watch him to star somewhere else when he’s good? Seems to me that with this system the only recruit you want is the quality transfer sophomore.

Not making any value judgments on the rule changes. I just think this changes everything way more than people realize.

Illini_1105 on April 5, 2021 @ 11:37 AM

Hmmm - interesting perspective I hadn't considered before

Alaskan Illini on April 2, 2021 @ 08:54 AM

"Pull the wrong Jenga piece and college athletics comes tumbling down, replaced by professional minor leagues unaffiliated with universities."

I think you've hit the nail on the head Robert. If they are paid, they are professionals . . . Period. This will be the death of college athletics, and not just the revenue sports. And the culprits? The NBA and the NFL, who have chosen to prevent 18 year olds from moving into the professional ranks and relied on college athletics to provide them a constant stream of talent without having to incur the costs of setting up semi-pro or development leagues.

Your statement regarding football and basketball providing the funding for all of the other sports also portends the end of all college athletics. This is the discussion that is left out of most media articles because it doesn't fit their narrative. The NCAA and the Universities are not making profits of millions/billions as most articles state, they are redistributing that wealth to support the almost 500,000 collegiate athletes that are not playing the two revenue sports. (FYI, about 73,000 athletes play college football at all levels, and almost 35,000 play men's and women's basketball at all levels - source:

Illiniboat on April 2, 2021 @ 10:23 AM

There should just be minor leagues for football and basketball like there are for baseball and hockey. College baseball and college hockey are still things, are still a pathway to the pros and players can go pro right out of high school if they want to or need to.

orangejulius on April 2, 2021 @ 12:17 PM

It seems to me that part of the attraction of NIL is that you get rid of some of the incentive for recruits and their families to accept illegal benefits. But we don't have NIL yet. And the mere anticipation of universal waiver for transfers creates this mass movement into the portal. And this puts double the importance on recruiting, as now you have to recruit your own players, other college players, and high school players. And with increased recruiting now there is much more possibility of bad behavior. I have to think, this is not what the NCAA had in mind. Or is it?

danny on April 2, 2021 @ 02:42 PM

I was bummed when I read the news. I felt Ace could be a big time player for the Illini. One possible explanation is that he was told he was their primary target when being recruited. If he commits they won’t recruit another shooting guard, he is there guy.

Now the staff is going all out for Burnett. It’s like the staff is recruiting “over” him. Not sure that’s the reason, I have no inside source. I get Underwood’s job is to win, but this could be consequences of the transfer portal. I would prefer Ace over Burnett cause he committed to the Illini n Burnett didnt.

IBFan on April 2, 2021 @ 09:34 PM

There were ongoing issues with Miller’s mom/family and handlers and their interactions with coaches according to other sites.
When Miller came in and Ayo came back Miller thought he would be the playmaker and have the ball in his hands after this year. However Curbelo happened and there is no way Miller has the handles to out compete Belo. I wish Adam the best but this is about “me” and not “we”. He can’t make it to the NBA as a 3 and D guy.

danny on April 2, 2021 @ 09:58 PM

That’s makes sense. He was the top dog coming into the program this year. After Ayo, it seemed he would be the man, but Curbelo had the better year. Competition makes people better.

But if it’s more about me than we as you stated, than it’s better for him to find that place. His goal is the NBA and why not. He will be missed but likely better that he finds the right spot for his goal.

HNLINI on April 3, 2021 @ 01:14 AM

As much as we don't want to think of it as a business, it's clearly a business. And while we romanticize Ayo's motivations for being the "guy" who led Illinois basketball out of the wilderness of mediocrity, there is clearly some cache and long-term financial benefit from an NIL perspective to being that guy. I'm thinking Ayo is the smartest guy in the room, from a strategy perspective. His downside was likely above a "Malcolm Hill" level of affinity from Illini fans. His upside, which he achieved: Instant Illini legend. Literally nothing that Adam Miller could do to top that, other than win a National Championship.

More power to these kids for exerting their will and what they want to do (whether it comes from them or their handlers). It may damage the "product" of college basketball long term, but that damage is largely self-inflicted by the greed of the NCAA and the power five. The more money those institutions make off of these kids' efforts, the more these kids and their handlers will want their fair share. And while its fair to question whether it is the correct decision for their careers, it should be theirs, and theirs alone, to make.

Good luck, Acewolf. Wish you would have stayed.

Alaskan Illini on April 4, 2021 @ 03:37 PM

NIL is the beginning of the end of CBB. Boosters will be paying $50,000 for a player's signed jersey (or promising to pay to potential recruits( as a way of boosting the chance of the player coming to their preferred school or staying).

The easy way out for the NCAA is to simply state they will not use the player's NIL, but that the player can't use it until they leave college either. It removes the ill-conceived notion that the universities and the NCAA are "profiting" from the athletes. The "profits" from men's CBB and football pay for all of the other sports (including some club sports), as not a single sport is self supporting other than men's CBB and football. In inconvenient truth . . .

HiggsBoson on April 3, 2021 @ 06:22 PM

I didn't, and don't, wish Mark Smith well. If Miller leaves, he may end up in that category, too.

Alaskan Illini on April 4, 2021 @ 03:33 PM

Yeah, I'm in the same boat. When they leave the O&B, they're dead to me. I care not as to what they do from the minute they leave . . . .

MuckFichigan92 on April 4, 2021 @ 11:29 PM


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